Italy doesn’t need much advertising. But in honor of a coming trip to Rome, and just in case you’ve never found yourself fantasizing about waking up in a Tuscan villa, here’s a list of some of my favorite books about the country. From romance to culinary quests, they are as varied as Italy’s regions, yet all sure to inspire if not a spontaneous flight (tickets to Europe are cheaper than ever!), at least a good session of daydreaming.
Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany by Bill Buford – After reading this book, Bill Buford became my personal hero. He leaves a job at The New Yorker for the kitchen of Babbo, the highly acclaimed New York restaurant headed by Mario Batali, in an effort to learn more about professional cooking. As anyone who has ever seen or worked in a restaurant kitchen can tell you, it is not glamorous. Buford quickly realizes this, but somehow manages to keep his pride as he fumbles his way through each station, his commentary smart and sarcastic and humorous and humbling all the while. What begins as a profile of Batali becomes a journey into the famed chef’s past, and not always in the most flattering of ways. In retracing Batali’s steps as a chef, Buford finds himself in the smallest of restaurants in northern Italy, learning the history and tradition surrounding each dish, while mastering the art of pasta making one orecchiete at a time.
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter – Vintage Italy, Hollywood glamour, love affairs made for the movies, and a rugged, sparkling coastline. With a first chapter like that, you know it’s going to be good. Beautiful Ruins is sweet and picturesque, without being overly so. It’s a beach read for historical fiction geeks, which is to say, me and thousands of others who made it a fast best seller. If you haven’t read it yet, this summer is the perfect time.
Midnight in Sicily: On Art, Food, History, Travel and la Cosa Nostra by Peter Robb – Peter Robb’s seductive yet disturbing account of 14 years of living in Sicily is a fascinating look into how la Cosa Nostra, the Mafia, permeates every corner of Sicilian life. A must read.
A Room With a View by E.M. Forster – When Lucy Honeychurch arrives in Florence and finds herself in a room without a view, she’s a bit dejected. Until George Emerson shows up and takes matters into his own hands, remedying the situation while unraveling Lucy’s life plan. It’s a classic love story of head versus heart, with a progressive slant for the early 19th century. The movie, starring a very young Helena Bonham Carter and with endless shots of Florence’s massive cathedral, is worth a watch as well.
La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind by Beppe Severgnini – “The chaos of the roads, the anarchy of the office, the theatrical spirit of the hypermarkets, and garrulous train journeys; the sensory reassurance of a church and the importance of the beach; the solitude of the soccer stadium and the crowded Italian bedroom; the vertical fixations of the apartment building and the horizontal democracy of the eat-in kitchen. As you venture to these and many other locations rooted in the Italian psyche, you realize that Beppe has become your Dante and shown you a country that “has too much style to be hell” but is “too disorderly to be heaven.” Couldn’t have said it better myself. One of the most hilarious and endearing books on this list.
Do you have any favorite books about Italy? I’d love to read them!